The trailblazing journey of Rob Van Dam is detailed on the WWE Network this weekend, as a special episode of WWE Icons airs this Sunday.
Van Dam spent an entire career battling against the demand for conformity. His unique path, coupled with a distinctively violent style of high-flying, helped innovate an entirely new approach to pro wrestling.
Now 50, Rob Szatkowski reflects on his time as Rob Van Dam in this WWE documentary series. Insight is also provided from Vince McMahon, Paul Heyman and a number of stars from ECW, including Sabu.
“I hung on to my core values,” said Van Dam, speaking with Sports Illustrated. “In wrestling, a lot of that had to do with how I was trained.”
Van Dam had a kickboxing background before learning from The Sheik, who gave him a thorough old-school introduction to the business of professional wrestling.
“Early in my career, the struggle for me was when people tried to pull me in all different sort of directions,” said Van Dam. “Sheik was always there for advice. I would tell him, ‘I’m being pulled one direction, this guy wants me to do this,’ and Sheik would say, ‘F--- them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. You listen to me.’ That was the best advice I ever got. I made that call a few times in my career, and he was always there for me. And when Sheik was no longer around, his words still stuck with me.”
Van Dam became an icon in ECW, which is also where his work became so closely associated with Sabu, who was the Sheik’s nephew.
“Sabu represented the Sheik, and I would listen to the two of them like a soldier,” said Van Dam. “I was so proud to represent the family. I always had great matches with Sabu. We were like-minded in what we thought was cool and entertaining about a match. We were both looking to thrill the fans in our own way.”
Though decades have passed, it is still natural to conjure up an image of Sabu and Van Dam wrestling in ECW ring, merging together violence and athleticism, and breaking tables, in a breathtaking manner.
“Sabu and I wrestled in the crowd and dove through tables before we even got to ECW, so that was very organic for us when we got there,” said Van Dam. “I hope he eventually gets the recognition that he deserves. He’s done a lot. He’s an innovator, he’s different. It was hard for him to fit into a corporate element. I think he walked out or quit from every important position he’s ever had.
“He’s had to do it his way. That’s keeping him from being in the position he should be post-wrestling. Not that he’s done wrestling, but I am very grateful for all this recognition. He deserves that, too.”
There is also a significant amount of time devoted to Van Dam’s 700-day run as ECW World Television Champion, beginning with the night in Buffalo, New York that he defeated Bam Bam Bigelow for the title.
While only briefly mentioned in Icons, an essential part of Van Dam’s title run was his feud with Jerry Lynn. Their pay per view match at Hardcore Heaven in May of 1999 remains an all-time classic.
“Jerry Lynn, we’d just met when we started wrestled,” said Van Dam. “It was a natural chemistry right from the start.”
Van Dam’s series of matches with Lynn allowed ECW to establish itself as cutting-edge. More than just violence, the promotion also featured some of the best professional wrestling on the planet. Van Dam became an even greater attraction with Lynn as his opponent, sparking a revolutionary style that still continues today.
“We brought out the best in each other,” said Van Dam. “It’s a style that helped change the business. People still refer to it as the Rob Van Dam-Jerry Lynn style.
“And that showed that ECW had everything. There was nothing we couldn’t do. We were in WWE’s backyard, and our belief was they watched us. There was a time when I had offers from both WWE and WCW, and I was turning down offers because I wanted ECW to grow. We took a lot of pride in what we did.”
Whether playing a babyface or a heel, Van Dam’s personality always made him such a likable presence in pro wrestling. He continues to be a fan favorite, and the Icons documentary allows viewers to see deeper elements of the man behind the RVD character, including the tight bond he had with his father, as well as the happiness from his relationship with Katie Forbes.
“It’s important to me that I exude positive energy,” said Van Dam. “What you put out there is what you surround yourself with, and that becomes your life. I’m so grateful for everything right now. I’m at my happiest. Katie Forbes is awesome, and we’re so happy.”
For more than two decades, Van Dam has shined in pro wrestling. His creative instinct and mindset are explored at length in Icons, which provides a compelling look at a Hall of Fame career.
“I never knew people would be inspired by me,” said Van Dam. “That’s very rewarding. I appreciate everybody that's took time to watch me, and I’m very happy to be where I am.”
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